Poorer students could be “priced out” of going to university following yesterday’s announcement that two Scottish universities will charge the maximum allowed fees for students coming from England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The Labour Party has joined the National Union of Students in condemning the announcement from Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt universities that they would charge UK students from outside Scotland £9,000 per year to study.
The University of Edinburgh has also said it will not follow other universities such as Aberdeen in capping total fees payable at £27,000. A four-year degree at Edinburgh could consequently cost students up to £36,000 – making it the most expensive university in the country.
Officials at both universities have defended the rise in fees, stating that the majority of the funds would be put towards providing bursaries for poorer students from the rest of the UK. The bursary package at the University of Edinburgh alone will be worth £6.7m a year, and up to £7,000 a year per student.
Labour’s Shadow Minister for Education, Claire Baker said the announcements “make a mockery” of the Scottish Government’s decision not to impose a mandatory fee cap on universities.
“I’m bitterly disappointed that others have chosen to follow Aberdeen University in setting fees for students from the rest of the UK at £9,000. I fear many less-well off students from other parts of the UK will now be priced out of Scottish universities.
“The Cabinet Secretary for Education chose to ignore Scottish Labour’s calls for a fair fee cap and told us his decision to allow Scottish universities to set their own fee levels would result in a range of fees, from £1,800 to £9,000. This news makes a mockery of Mike Russell’s assertion.
“Of course, the Tory-led government in Westminster has to take its share of the blame for this situation, but it’s up to Scotland’s Education Secretary to tackle the problem of widening access.”
Baker’s comments echo condemnation from the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland Depute President Graeme Kirkpatrick, who called the announcement from the University of Edinburgh “staggering and ridiculous”.
“The average cost to study at Oxford and Cambridge is around £25,000 in fees, which while still eye-wateringly large, pales in comparison with this. And that’s before you add additional debt for the extra year of living costs for the four-year degree in Scotland,” said Kirkpatrick.
“This is nothing less than cashing in on students from the rest of the UK and giving the signal that Edinburgh University is more interested in the money you can bring as opposed to your academic ability. The reputational damage this could do, not only to Edinburgh, but to the whole of Scottish higher education, should not be underestimated.
“Universities in Scotland seem to think they can charge anything they like, and that students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland will still come here to study regardless. Given that students from the rest of the UK make up about 15 per cent of the whole of Scotland’s university sector they are clearly taking huge risks with tens of thousands of people’s futures, and many millions of pounds.
“Principals are engaged in a race to the top, fearing a lower fee shows a lower quality. It’s a sad day when Edinburgh feels it can only maintain its reputation through its price rather than the quality of education on offer.
“Principals have been given a near free reign in setting fees for rest of UK students, and they are simply abusing this. We will now work with the Scottish Government to improve their proposals for 2013, limiting principals’ discretion, starting with a strong bursary system to protect access for the poorest students.
Human rights lawyers have claimed that differential fees for UK students not from Scotland could fall foul of EU equality legislation, with one firm, Public Interest Lawyers, stating it has begun preparing a case against the Scottish Government.